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The Value and Perils of Customized Sales Training

Yesterday during The Top Sales Experts Roundtable, Linda Richardson made a strong case for customized sales training.  It’s not something she has to convince us at ESR about.

Many organizations want a customized sales training experience, whether it be live or virtual.  This can be good or bad, depending upon what experiences and materials are customized, and to what degree. It’s important for sales training buyer to understand any and all customization requirements and objectives; and, it is incumbent upon that person to have an effective strategy for customization.

ESR have yet to find a client who says, “Yes, off-the-shelf training is just fine for my organization.” Every organization feels that it is unique, that its problems are unique, and that only a unique program can maximize their potential.

The Problem

When an organization brings in a sales training company, there is a challenge that the organization is trying to overcome or an opportunity to leverage.

This fundamentally implies that a change is needed—that the status quo is not sufficient to continue to propel sales growth. The sales training company is brought in to effect some change, usually a behavioral change, in the participating sales people, to stimulate that sales growth.

ESR recommends that the first place to look when considering any degree of behavioral change is your sales methodology.  That’s the backbone on which all your processes, tools, training, hiring, measurement system, and sales approach will be built. Fix or replace the methodology first. If you don’t have a methodology, you will need to build one.  (Training your team on how to employ that methodology eventually follows.)  This is an old song, but everyone needs to hear it until they can sing along.

Change vs. Status Quo

By acknowledging the need for change, it’s important to understand the meaning of sales training program customization. There are two types of customization:

  1. Tailoring—adapting the training materials to reflect the sales organization’s products, services, sales force characteristics, as well as market and corporate specifics;
  2. Modification—altering the intellectual property of the sales training company resulting in different learnings, or modifying the instructional design of the program so that there is a core difference in the way the materials are presented.

Tailoring is almost always useful. Tailoring materials gets your company name in front of the sales people and personalizes the experience. Tailoring can replace canned, generic workshop examples with actual examples from your sales force’s existing pipeline, or recent wins or losses, personalizing the experience and maximizing the probability that the sales person will identify with the program. Tailoring, if limited to phrasing, word usage, workshops and case study examples, is often helpful.

Modification is a two-edged sword. Modification can be helpful if there are processes within your sales organization that you know factually and empirically work, and if you can separate these working best practices from those processes which you know, or suspect, may be constraining your sales growth.

The Risk of Modification

Modification carries a potential risk—LCD—”lowest common denominator.”  There is an observable tendency among course and methodology modifiers, resulting from pressure from certain stakeholders, to fine tune the new methods and processes taught in the course materials to such an extent that they are “devolved” into a mere reflection of the existing, flawed sales methodology. Customizing course materials to make the program “more like our business environment” can effectively negate the original objective of the program, which was to effect behavioral change.

With that in mind, ESR has recognized some leading sales training companies for their very effective approaches to modification.

Avoiding “Devolution”

How do you avoid “devolution” in your customized sales training programs?  Four considerations:

  1. Invest in a comprehensive, objective assessment of the performance of your sales team—know very specifically what works and what doesn’t;
  2. When documenting and implementing best practices, make sure that you have empirical metrics that denote that those practices do, in fact, stimulate behaviors that increase sales;
  3. Evaluate your sales training company’s methods for modification of educational programs;
  4. Stick with tailoring of your training provider’s content, assuming you’ve selected the right partner.

Number three is important. Some sales training organizations resist modification of their programs at all.  Some have a core set of learnings that are assembled and designed around a study of your organization’s best practices. Others have designed proprietary systems or methodologies for modifying course materials that are specifically designed to maximize the value of nomenclature tailoring, while minimizing the probability that the structural integrity of a course will be damaged by the customization effort.

My recommendation is this: Don’t make a snap decision on either a trainer or on your customization approach.  Do you have to spend all this time and effort figuring this out?  Only if you want to get it right.

Source:  The Value and Perils of Customized Training, an ESR/Insight™ Brief.

Photo credit: © bugman – Fotolia.com

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My 2009 Word of The Year, So Far

One of my most-used words these days is “scrutinize.”  Merriam-Webster says it means to examine closely and minutely.”

At ESR, we find ourselves using the word fairly often:

  • VPs have been asking us about how to determine which sales reps to keep and which to redeploy.  In this current economic situation some of what salesreps depended on to win in the past will simply no longer work.  It’s the old, “the past does not equal the future.” We recommend scrutinizing past performance as well as all the reps’ strengths and weaknesses against the new set of required skills and traits. And we strongly recommend psychometric testing. It’s very effective objective scrutiny.

  • We know from work with our clients that business acumen is more important now in B2B selling than ever before.  Salesreps need to scrutinize their customers, clients and prospects.  (More about this and some disturbing data when ESR reports on the results of our social media in B2B sales survey, which closed today.)  By the way, I was recently briefed by Chip Terry, Vice President and General Manager Enterprise Solutions at ZoomInfo.  He demoed their product.  Within two minutes I could see how ZoomInfo can provide the breadth and depth of information about not only companies, but equally as important, people within those companies, on whom salesreps would be calling.)

  • Messaging.  How relevant are the messages your salespeople are delivering to your customers and sales prospects?  Those need to be scrutinized and relevance to what and how your customers are buying must be determined.

  • New approaches and tools.  I’ve written a lot about the new social media as well as Sales 2.0 (again here).  These are very hot topics. (Just the number and flavor of comments to these three blog posts will attest to that.)  ESR’s recommendation is to… You guessed it:  thoroughly scrutinize any new direction or investment with respect to either or both of these promising technologies. The time may be right.  But then again, it may not be.

  • Lead Generation and Lead Nurturing.  Brian Carroll (podcast) and I are working on a project together.  Just yesterday we were discussing the challenges most companies are facing these days in those challenged areas.  What’s required for many companies is significant scrutiny. Bring in experts if you need to.  Get the right one—someone like Brian perhaps—and it will be money well-spent.

  • Sales training.  I’m very concerned about the significant drop in sales training during the past quarter.  Sales training may be precisely the right area to scale back in certain companies.  But certainly not in all, or even most.  Again, here’s where some significant scrutiny will enable you to determine where to spend your limited funds so that you have the biggest chance of making it through this economic situation.

  • Here are a few more areas that should be targeted for some scrutiny: Territory assignments, compensation, coaching mechanisms, measurement and analytics, sales process, sales support and readiness.  The list goes on.

Photo credit: © Sandor Kacso – Fotolia.com

Powering Through The Economic Crisis

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting less frequently during the past two weeks.  ESR is in the midst of a number of projects and new initiatives.  In addition, I’ve been on an increasing number of phone calls with clients, prospects, vendors, sales training associations’ leadership, and business associates.

I wrote Here’s What’s Going On two weeks ago.  There has been lots of activity (and some productivity, as well!) since then.

Here are some points, observations, and opinions I’ve taken from my activities over the past few weeks:

  1. I read all the news.  I understand the economic situation.  But deals are getting done.  Four of ESR’s clients I spoke with yesterday are cautiously optimistic about their Q1 numbers. They’re winning business.  A few others are struggling.  But the point is, there is still business going on.

  2. At the moment, ESR believes sales training will be down twenty or more percent in 2009.  If we don’t hit bottom and come out the other end of this situation soon, that number could go down much further.  That’s bad news for a lot of reasons.

  3. As a result of the slowdown in training, many of the sales training companies we cover have been hit hard.  They’ve significantly reduced their staffs and slowed or stopped development.  If you’re engaging with a sales training company, you really need to understand their current financial situation.  ESR isn’t interested in advertising which firms are having trouble.  But we do guide our clients in the right direction, helping them figure out how to mitigate any associated risks.

  4. We’ve convinced a number of our clients to redeploy salespeople who aren’t suited for the sales positions they hold.  By that I mean performing a comprehensive assessment of their past and current performance, their skills, traits and behaviors against what is required to comply with and execute their selling process.  Relative to that, I recently did a briefing call with DDI.  They’re a leader in the talent management and assessment area.  I’ve written about PIWorldwide as well.  HR Chally is another solid alternative.  Now, more than ever, every company, even the smallest, needs to have a talent management/assessment firm partner with a sales specialty.

  5. Under Brian Lambert’s leadership, ASTD is making significant progress in the sales training discipline.  Brian has a lot to offer the industry. I sit on the ASTD sales training committee along with a number of very experienced and professional consultants, trainers and practitioners.  (Al Case, ESR’s Principal Analyst, and I will be presenting at ASTD’s Conference in June.  The subject:  How to Measure Sales Performance Improvement.)

  6. We’ve had a record number of inquiries come in during the past month from people charged with driving sales training initiatives within their companies.  The common theme is that they have to “get it right this time. ”  They can’t waste any more money on ineffective training and, with this economy, they’ve got to get their salespeople bringing in as much business as possible.  Even with overall sales training down, this is encouraging.  Several of those people are charged with moving their companies from positions of commodity to value providers.  A bit late for that, but better late than never.

  7. With the last point in mind, Irish sales trainer, coach and consultant Niall Devitt wrote a post this week that describes precisely how sales leaders go about buying sales training the wrong way.  The post, entitled Need Sales Training? Let’s Sit Down and Talk About It is well worth reading.   Niall sets an example for sales trainers as well.  I commend him on his understanding of how sales performance improvement should be approached and his integrity for not folding, even with money on the table during these tough times.

  8. Louise Leonard, program manager for The Dublin Institute of Technology and Enterprise Ireland’s International Selling Programme, sent me a list of sales-related concerns expressed by the sales executives and CEOs who are participating in the program.  I’ll be addressing many of them during upcoming two-week, five-seminar trip to Ireland.  Although Ireland is plowing through their own set of economy-related challenges, the International Selling Programme has  a record number of participants this year.  Better attendance at each of the sessions as well.  This program is a seriously good place for Irish companies to be investing their money.

Photo: © 2004 Dave Stein — MacGregor Powering Through a Summer Day

ESR’s Approach For A Sales Performance Improvement Initiative

As ESR is completing our Sales Training Vendor Guide we are updating a number of our models.  Here is a presentation of our sales training approach model that we deliver to project teams tasked with finding, evaluating, and selecting sales training companies. The content is based upon work we’ve done with clients during the past two years.

As you can see, the process is considerably more comprehensive than you might think. Clients ask us, “Do we really have to do all this just to do some sales training?” Our answer is, “Only if you want it to work.” (Thanks, John Zobel.)

Here’s another taste of what’s in our Guide:



If you’d like to speak with us about how we support our clients through this process, let me know.

Resources: 

Sales Hiring From a Recruiter’s Perspective

As ESR continues to assess our clients’ sales challenges, we maintain that having the wrong people in the sales jobs is, in many cases, the biggest inhibitor to the success of a training intervention.  My interview with Todd Harris of PI Worldwide highlighted one of the tools available for sales leaders to get an objective assessment of candidates as well as existing sales personnel.

I’m far from done with this subject.  I wanted to get another perspective, so here are some questions I posed to Kathleen Steffey, CEO of sales recruitment firm Naviga Business Services, based in Tampa.  Kathleen also writes the SalesJournal blog.

Dave Stein: As CEO of a national sales and marketing recruitment firm, share with me what changes you’ve seen in your business in the past three months.

Kathleen Steffey: In the last three months I’ve seen growth and expansion with my existing customer base and a decline in “new” customer contracts. Because of this trend, my business has made a shift to heavily focus on existing customer penetration and customer management. We’ve created new programs to capitalize on our existing customer base-viral marketing campaigns, referral programs, aggressive business development penetration (all inside our existing customer base). I am also focusing heavily on recruiting performance to make sure we are executing on every single piece of business we receive to maximize revenue. Customers are behaving in a very smart way and show a thorough decision making process when it comes to candidates. They are taking every aspect of the hiring process much more serious as every penny counts these days. Because my business is steadily growing, we are currently looking for additional recruiters. Our recruiter candidate pipeline is the best I’ve seen in years, in terms of quality. I am taking advantage of the down market to select only the best and brightest to join my team in the next month.

DS: I’m curious about high-performing sales reps. Do you see them looking for new opportunities or are they sticking with the companies for which they are currently working?

KS: The volume of candidate flow has increased dramatically.  Many, many “A” player sales reps have been laid off and/or are looking for a new opportunities due to the instability of their current employer. I personally know many sales executives who have contacted me to express that they are looking for a new opportunity.  They are coming out of the woodwork right now.

DS: What about sales managers? Any new trends there? Are your clients hiring?

KS: I have seen a trend of customers that have a strong focus on evaluating overall team sales performance and linking it back to poor sales leadership. A handful of my customers are deciding to really clean shop and terminate low performing sales reps and terminate non-influential sales leaders. We have many confidential searches going on that support this scenario.

DS: What advice might you give to a sales rep or manager who is currently employed?  Stick where they are or look around for a better opportunity?

KS: If someone is employed with an organization that is reacting well to this current economy-shifting, changing, creating, enhancing, looking at different verticals to penetrate, etc, then you have a proactive organization that is adjusting to the current state and shows promise. I say stick it out and keep at it… Penetrate your prospects harder than ever and make sure you’re creating value, providing solid industry insight and serving them well.. better than you ever have.

I can’t comment on whether or not someone should stay with their organization.. it completely depends on the state of the business, industry, product, etc. I do know that two of the hottest industries that are doing well right now are healthcare and energy, in the event people need focus on where to look.

DS: I know your firm does about 20% retained and 80% contingency work. What advice can you give a hiring authority as to which way to go?

KS: While both options offer our customers the same level of attention and quality, I would have to suggest that going retained always wins. A retained relationship brings focus, commitment and efficiency to the customer/vendor partnership and displays strong value in filling the position with Naviga. At the very least, a retained relationship removes other variables that the hiring manager would normally have to deal with if working contingency-job advertisements, other recruiters, internal responses to postings, etc. A retained relationship allows Naviga to streamline the recruiting process and save valuable time for our customers.

DS: How is your firm helping companies hire the right candidates?  As you know, ESR’s research identifies this as a big, big problem.

KS: First and foremost we get to know our customers. I view this as a critical piece in quality recruiting and making an appropriate match. We understand the make-up of the organization—revenues, employees, top leadership style, product/service focus, market differentiation, strengths/weaknesses, etc. Next we get to the critical part of the engagement and this is where we reveal the sales culture/environment. We understand the sales team, territories, product price, sales cycle, ramp up, top performer profiles, sales leadership and how the team is led, CRM/reporting requirements, candidate profile, etc.  We’ve found that there is a significant correlation with how the team is led and the performance of the overall team. We take this discovery serious to determine if our candidates will be in an environment where they can be successful.

I am a strong advocate of this statement, “The best predictor of future performance is past performance”.. I train and coach my team to measure the quality of the candidates by their past performance and to relate the sales environment associated with those successes to the current position we are looking to fill. I am also a strong advocate of looking at W2’s, understanding the past compensation programs, looking at industry, product/services, average sales cycle and deal price and evaluate whether or not there is a sales environment/culture match.

Because Naviga specializes in sales recruitment, our evaluation process is very specialized and “sales centric.” We have a standardized evaluation process that every recruiter uses and it’s based on the position we are recruiting; for an example-it can vary based on hunter, farmer, or leadership positions. We use a standard list of eight (8) key sales dimensions when we interview candidates. We ask questions around selling skills, sales knowledge, intellectual ability, personal, interpersonal, motivation, tenure and compensation. Our internal evaluation process is a hybrid of Greg Alexander’s Top Grading for Sales approach, which is adjusted for our business model/customer needs.

Photo credit:  © Lisa F. Young – Fotolia.com

What About Your Salesreps Who Work From Home?

A lot more salesreps are working from home now than even a few years ago.  But working from home isn’t for every salesrep or every company.  Now’s the time to look at this issue.  It could mean the difference between your home-office reps making their numbers or not.

A post on (Jigsaw’s CEO) Garth Moulton’s blog about the profiles of inside sales reps brought to mind some of the discussions we’ve had with VPs of sales about the challenges related to telecommuting for their salesreps.

I recently discussed an underperforming  home-based salesrep with his VP of sales.  Intent on  diagnosing the problem, I asked, “Do you have evidence that he’s working 50 to 60 hours a week…  for you?”  The VP said he didn’t know whether the rep was working the hours, or full time for his company.  He should have known the answers to both parts of that question and the answers should have been two yesses.

When hiring, there is no question in my mind that you don’t want to be the one who gives a salesrep her first opportunity to work from a home office.  Way too risky.  I’ve seen dozens of failures due to this simple mistake.  You have to be certain that the rep has been successfully selling from a home office environment.  There are traits and skills required to accomplish this.  Know what those are and make sure you compare the candidate against those requirements.

If an office-based rep you currently have on board wants to switch to telecommute for first time, now may not be the best time.  Neither you nor they can afford a slip in productivity.  Just because someone wants to work from a home office doesn’t mean they should.

We’ve been working with a few clients that have very good situations with salesreps who work from home.  Most notable are two women who had a terrific year in 2008 with one of our clients, closing multiple $250k application software opportunities without ever leaving their home offices.  They are relentless qualifiers, have very effective discovery processes, are marvelous at creating demand and leading champions within their customers’ organizations through a collaborative buying/selling process.  These home-based reps are motivated, focused, and have all the skills and attributes required for successful selling from a home office.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Don’t hire a rep for a home-0ffice situation who can’t prove they’ve been successful at it in the past.
  • Some salesreps need the support and camaraderie associated with an office environment. Others aren’t capable of working from home due to lack of discipline or motivation.  Still others don’t have the knowledge, experience or skills to get the job done.  Make sure you know all the strengths and weaknesses of your own reps and anyone you are looking at hiring.
  • Certain selling  jobs require a fair amount of time in the office.  If that’s the case, no one should be based at home. A day a week, fine, but no more than that.
  • Don’t let a good rep strong-arm you into allowing them to transition to a home-based office unless you’re certain they’ll get the selling job done.
  • Make sure you’ve got the right sales performance measurement system in place.  You need to be able to spot trends in individual performance before they impact your forecast.
  • If you’re going to have reps working from home, provide them with the equipment they need, including hardware (for example, a backup hard drive), the appropriate sales enablement software (a strong knowledge management system, for example) and a high-quality headset.

Finally, the risks associated with home-based sales reps are mitigated when you have a pragmatic sales methodology that’s in place and used across your entire sales team.  If you don’t have one, that’s what you need to do, starting today.

Photo credit: © Wollwerth Imagery – Fotolia.com